Apr 18 2013
LONDON — Formula One drivers were arriving on Thursday for the Bahrain Grand Prix, which is to go ahead on schedule this weekend after the organizers rejected calls from human rights activists to cancel it.
The controversy over whether the small Arabian Gulf kingdom should host the international event is on the way to becoming an annual fixture of the sporting calendar since the 2011 race was scrapped because of a crackdown on street protests.
Since then, the government’s strong-arm reaction to demonstrators demanding greater democracy and equal rights for the island state’s Shia population has failed to quash the protest movement.
Dozens of people were injured in March as protesters clashed with the riot police on the second anniversary of a Saudi-led military intervention to assist the Bahraini authorities confront the unrest.
As isolated clashes between the police and protestors were reported on Thursday, the main Shia opposition group said it was planning a major demonstration to coincide with preparations for the Grand Prix.
Human Rights Watch, one of a number of groups that called for the event to be canceled, warned there was a risk that the Bahraini authorities would use repressive measures to clamp down on the protests.
“Bahrain is already tightening the lid on protest as the Formula 1 race grows near,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s Middle East director. “The Formula 1 organizers apparently prefer to bury their heads in the sand, risking holding their race against repression it has provoked.”
Human rights groups say Bahrain’s Sunni rulers want to use the event to convey a semblance of normality in a country that is still wracked by regular clashes between the security forces and protesters.
The authorities have managed to confine the trouble mainly to Shia villages, out of sight of areas likely to be frequented by Grand Prix visitors.
“The public relations whirl around grand prix week always brings an attempt to suppress a few secrets that King Hamad’s regime would rather you did not see,” wrote Oliver Brown in the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.